Keeping a consistent narrative is crucial for a brand’s credibility today; Gen Z customers, the demographic coveted by every luxury house, are drawn to designers whose work is creative and value-driven in equal measure. That dynamic isn’t lost on Pierpaolo Piccioli, who has rebooted Valentino for a new audience, amping up the brand’s cultural ethos to resonate with the zeitgeist. Pivoting on the label’s extraordinary couture heritage, Piccioli’s focus is to translate the codes of Italian savoir faire into an aesthetic that, while staying true to its high-style fundamentals, speaks to the attitudes of fashion’s younger consumers. This ongoing exercise somehow peaked, both visually and conceptually, in Piccioli’s spring collection last October, paraded in the streets of Paris with fashion students filling many of the seats. Models sported individual looks styled to suit their personality, further highlighting the intent to relate to the world of today. Picking up where that show left off, the words ‘real’ and ‘reality’ came up quite often in a conversation with the designer about pre-fall. Piccioli believes that the aesthetic codes of the maison can be given a different meaning by shifting the way they’re interpreted by the wearer. To that end, for pre-fall he worked on pieces quintessentially Valentino (so much so that some templates came directly from couture collections), but “shuffled the attitude,” as he said, and tweaked the styling to create a sort of dissonance and vitality.
Shot in the streets of London on young models, the lookbook images were conceived as a “portrait of a generation that wears clothes not necessarily different from those of 10, 20 years ago, but which are adapted to today’s lifestyle and our real social context,” said Piccioli. Case in point was the little black dress, a staple for cocktail receptions in a bourgeois milieu that Piccioli believes can be twisted into a sort of clubbing uniform. On the same note, an immaculate short white cape with matching pleated shirt that would’ve looked apropos on Marisa Berenson in the ‘70s if paired with high heels and a silk blouse, was given a cooler spin styled with a cropped marinière and chunky loafers. A sumptuous purple robe coat, lavishly embroidered with the Valentino atelier’s handcrafted couture techniques was turned into a citycoat and worn over a pair of distressed denim pants. The challenge Piccioli faces is to immerse into today’s complex reality a label whose imagery is rarefied and rooted in a world of privilege, twisting the references and techniques of couture to suit a modern way of dressing that favors personality instead of status. “I want to breathe life into Valentino,” he reiterated. “I want its idea of perfect beauty to be somehow stained, so to speak, by the reality of today’s life, and to make it alive and relevant for a community of people with no reverence towards fashion, but who inhabit fashion with sentiment and an attitude of personal creativity.”
This season’s Valentino collection was entirely pink and black, which at first might sound like a banal thing to do. “I was fascinated by the idea of having this moment of reflection and digging deeper,” Pierpaolo Piccioli said during a preview. Presented in a huge space painted to match the exact pink of the collection, his idea was to intensify the senses and make us look at the details of each garment – the silhouette, the neckline, the surface decoration – rather than focusing on “looks”. Ultimately, he said, he wanted the character of each model to stand out, rather than what their appearance represented. “I was reading a book about Fontana [the Italian artist and Spatialist], who used to cut up his work – not in order to destroy it but to build new opportunities; new dimensions,” the designer went on. “You know when you see a book of black and white portraits, after two or three pages you know it’s a black and white portrait book, so you don’t expect to see blonde hair and blue eyes? You go deeper into expressions: wrinkles… I wanted to get that feeling.” Once the eye adjusted to all that pink, the effect did work. You noticed the details of garments, and looked at the models’ faces. For Piccioli, whose work always revolves around the celebration of individuality and diversity, the monochromatism – which is, in essence, uniformity – was meant to draw the observer’s attention to the individual wearing the clothes. To underscore that point, he focused on necklines – what he called “Madonna meets the street” referring to the way the Holy Mother’s face was framed by Renaissance artists – and placed them on a cast including Penelope Tree and Kristen McMenamy. The collection continued Piccioli’s couture-ification of everyday codes, adapted for ready-to-wear. A t-shirt elongated into a draped minidress, a sporty jumpsuit morphed into a formalwear silhouette, and a generational cargo suit was imbued with a glamorous hourglass shape. Menswear dealt in the very oversized, from giant suits to puffer coats and highly embellished transparent evening tops, all of which will be sold in stores in just pink and black, the way it was presented, Piccioli vowed. By the way, this isn’t just a shade of pink. Piccioli’s particular shade of pink will be added to Pantone’s official colour scale under the name of “Pink PP” – a counterpart, perhaps, to Valentino Garavani’s “Valentino Red”. And while he never wears pink himself, Piccoli explained it’s an ongoing fascination. “I always want pink in my collections. It’s a colour I feel you can subvert better, because it already has a lot of meaning. It changed during the centuries: it was the colour of the power of men, then it became girlish… I like to subvert the idea. Today, it means different things.”
And just like that, Pierpaolo Piccioli is the king of spring-summer 2022 haute couture season. The latest Valentino collection is everything a truly phenomenal couture collection should be, and more. You could see the emotion in the eyes of some of the models as they glided through the maison’s Place Vendôme salons to a specially recorded soundtrack by Anohni. “She was told she’d never walk couture,” Pierpaolo Piccioli said of one of. “In couture you never see these bodies. Never.” It is in large part thanks to Piccioli that haute couture is finding relevance in an age set on breaking the constructs of the past. On his mission to make this elitist corner of fashion matter to the generations dubbed “woke,” he has decided to “keep the codes, but change the values”: to give the broad spectrum of humanity the chance to mirror themselves in haute couture, in place of the waify, white, classical beauty ideal of its past. In front of a distanced audience of just 65, he broke with the skinny stigma of that heritage in a collection titled the Anatomy of Couture. “When you do couture, you have the house model. And you apply the body of the house model to 50 or 60 models on the runway. I wanted to break these rules and embrace the idea of different proportions of body, different sizes, different ages. But it was impossible to do this with just one house model. So, I broke the rules and got 10 house models in with differently proportioned bodies,” he explained. The idea of haute couture was always to adapt silhouettes to the client’s body. But those silhouettes are typically dreamt up, fitted and realized on a tall, slim and young physique. This season, Piccioli changed that model, in more than one way. And in the process, he said, “We got to create new silhouettes.” A partly fuller-figured cast than what you normally see on a couture catwalk did change Piccioli’s silhouette. His signature monastic Roman lines and Hellenistic drapery morphed into shapes that registered more dynamic, more mid-century, more glamorous. Through a Hollywood lens, you might call them sexy. But it wasn’t as if his new cast looked shockingly different in size to the runway norm, which was perhaps testament to his method – and skill. “In runway shows, sometimes there are 50 skinny models and one bigger-sized. I feel like you don’t really relate to that. You don’t believe that. You just tick the box,” Piccioli said.
His consistent cast helped to illustrate the power of the craft. The intertwined straps of an ebony velvet gown framed the shoulders of the model and pulled in her waist, the volume of its skirt balancing out the proportions. A chocolate stretch tulle dress covered in two kilos of Venetian glass beads hand-embroidered for three months hugged the body, allowing the beads to shape and support the model’s frame. Piccioli employed his approach to surface decoration, too. A lilac faille gown was adorned with great big bows around the neckline, something that could easily look overwhelming on a fuller figure, but didn’t because of the custom proportions and placements of those bows on that particular neckline. In his couture take on the stretchy body-con favored by the generation who coined slim thicc, Piccioli proposed a neon coral ankle dress, which wasn’t stretch at all, but created through four layers of georgette whose interaction created a natural elasticity that adapted to the body. Throughout, he demonstrated how couture can build a silhouette around the body, and either highlight a person’s shape or manipulate it through dressmaking. It made all the difference, because clothes are construction. One size doesn’t fit all, but one blueprint scaled up or down certainly doesn’t, either. We’ve all seen that in practice on red carpets where people of a different physique to the body that modeled the dress on the runway can end up looking under – or overblown, because the dimensions and adornments of the silhouette don’t take kindly to the scaling process. And then, the confidence goes. “I feel that if you don’t deliver the ideas of power and strength and fierceness with these kinds of shapes, you’re missing the message,” Piccioli said. If body empowerment is something he is sensitive to, it’s also because his own three children are in their teens and twenties: Gen Z-ers raised on social media in an age where body ideals have the added extremity of plastic surgery normalization. “That’s what I share with them,” he said, referring to the connection he felt with his cast through the experiences of being a father to young people today. “This could deliver a strong message for young people who are struggling with something. If she’s beautiful, you can be beautiful,” Piccioli said, gesturing at one of his gorgeous cast members.
For his own generation, the message was the same. “The body modifies with age. They’re still as beautiful but the shape is different. I wanted to capture the beauty of how the body modifies.” Models older than the couture show average – Kristen McMenamy, Marie Sophie Wilson, Lara Stone, Violetta Sanchez, Lynn Koster, Jon Kortajarena – hardly looked out of place. On the contrary, the character that comes with age brought a confidence to their looks. It was never more pronounced than in Piccioli’s most “normal” silhouettes infused with the gestures of haute couture, like Sanchez’s white T-shirt (in silk sablé crêpe) worn with a pearl gray duchesse satin skirt wildly hand-embroidered with silver sequins, or Mariacarla Boscono’s tailored sequinned trousers (silk poplin with hand-embroidery) worn with a dramatic fuchsia stole in faille. Piccioli’s collection was another brick in the legacy he is building for himself as a couturier of change. If used as a laboratory to develop techniques that can inform both the possibilities and values of ready-to-wear, haute couture becomes the most relevant part of a contemporary fashion system. It turns into the think tank of fashion. “Since the Middle Ages, there have always been canons of beauty,” Piccioli said, listing all the body ideals of the times. “Once we’d had enough of all the canons, we discovered that humanity is the only canon that’s valid: freedom; be yourself. That’s the real canon.”
Lately, Pierpaolo Piccioli‘s direction at Valentino is towards creating clothes that celebrate life. Parisian cafés hold a particular charm for the designer these days. The Valentino show he staged last month had models walking out of the Carré du Temple to stroll in the surrounding streets, where people were sitting in cafés enjoying the en plein air experience. For resort 2022, which reads as a sort of prequel to the spring collection, the lookbook was shot in the Marais, a lively arrondissement populated by a hip and diverse crowd, in a café called Le Progrès. Its name resonates with Piccioli’s ongoing practice at the label, which he’s trying to steer forward without detracting from its history. “I want to bring life and a sense of reality into Valentino,” he said over Zoom from his studio in Rome. “Bringing it out of the atelier while retaining the savoir faire of the atelier.” Piccioli has been at the maison long enough to know its codes by heart; he has lived through its glamourous heyday, when Valentino Garavani received guests at his Château de Wideville, whose grounds were as perfectly manicured as the high-maintenance crowd that walked them. It was a world as fabulous as it was secluded and inaccessible. “I don’t want to forget the castle, but you have to be rooted in the present,” he said. “I want to bring the castle to the street, so to speak, and bring the street to the castle.” He calls this process re-signification; he feels that his duty as a fashion designer today is to be the vector of a vision of beauty in tune with the times we’re living in. “Beauty today means diversity and inclusivity; I want to encourage people to embrace it,” he said. Piccioli’s message is calibrated to appeal to younger generations, for which such values are a given; at Le Progrès, the cast included singer and TikTok-er Dixie D’Amelio; model and editor of the online platform the Youth Collective Project Amanda Prugnaud; filmmaker Christian Coppola; and actress Tina Kunakey. Every piece of the collection was treated individually to make it stand out on its own, not only adding to its value, but also allowing for the layered, personal styling which is becoming a sort of signature of Piccioli’s tenure. Shapes were simple and “almost elemental, without any grandeur,” and enhanced by elaborate decorations. A slender, slightly masculine white wool coat was appliquéd with floral ramages cut-out in black velvet, while a simple oversized black tee was intarsia-ed with lace as if a dressy blouse were somehow patchworked onto it. Eccentric flourishes were lavished on everyday pieces – feathers dotted sweats, capes, and svelte minidresses; long braided fringes trimmed ponchos; intricate broderie anglaise techniques appeared on slender, minimal tunics; and romantic blouses were encrusted with precious lace and worn with denim. “I wanted to make what is ordinary more imaginative and fantastical,” Piccioli said. “This is just extra-ordinary daywear.”
In his brilliant and vibrant spring-summer 2022 collection for Valentino, Pierpaolo Piccioli celebrates life and all its beauty. To mark the return of Valentino’s ready-to-wear to Paris, he took over the old marketplace at the Carreau du Temple, and a row of neighboring cafés and restaurants opposite, to put on a joyful all-gendered show reunion symbolically blurring the distinctions between insiders and outsiders. “It has been such such a tough moment. That’s why I decided to get Valentino into a new dimension: life,” he said, amidst a backstage scene packed with young people who were getting ready to walk along the street for everyone to see, before filing back into the market space where the regular invited audience were seated at café tables. Piccioli, much loved in the industry for his warmth and down-to-earth lack of snobbery, felt the rupture of the past two years meant it has finally come time to put words and fine intentions into action. “I’ve been talking for a long time about making a shift, embracing a new generation, a new world,” he said. “And also to be leading a change. You know, Mr. Valentino took part in engaging with youth in the ’60s. That was a revolutionary time. So I think this is my way of doing that today: keeping the codes and the couture values, and talking about a beauty which is about humanity and a shared wardrobe.” With refreshing candor, he said he didn’t really want to speak about clothes, inspirations, and narratives. “Fashion is about clothes – but it’s also about people wearing clothes. If I had to add words to talk about the storytelling, maybe my mission was not accomplished. Because I want to talk more about our community of people, sharing values – rather than a group of individuals that share the surfaces of a lifestyle. It’s more about celebrating diversity in a joyous way. “ He pitched the production towards embracing Gen Zers with a proposition of a beautiful, casualized couture wardrobe designed to float between genders: lightweight taffeta tailoring in vivid colors, plethoras of dresses from minuscule and cutaway to sweeping, embroidered caftans. There was also classic Valentino symbolism dotted through the collection. The opening look, an organdy flower-embroidered blouse and tiny skirt, referred to Valentino Garavani’s all-white collection of 1968 – immortalized in a photograph of Marisa Berenson. There was a reproduction of a slim, tiger-striped maxi coat, famously worn by Veruschka the following year – and to end with, a pair of floaty, flower-printed dresses from the ’70s. “Well, this is how I used to relate to Valentino when I was a kid myself – I came from far away from it. I dreamed about it through seeing fashion photographs, never the clothes, or the shows themselves,” Piccioli said. A personal memory of his own youth was immortalized in the relaunch of a pair of high-waisted jeans: “This is from the first denim collection Valentino launched in the ’80s, which I had,” he laughed. On the back of the jeans was the very fashion advert – likely Bruce Weber – which had brought Piccioli to buy into the brand in the first place. Democratizing and making a high-flown brand relatable to a new generation of consumers is of course the task and responsibility of pretty much every creative director today. Pierpaolo Piccioli is doing that with grace. It was a sociable, relaxed, celebratory moment where the future he believes in felt real.